Visitors to Ann Arbor may be surprised that amidst the academic buildings, historic nineteenth century homes and post-war tract housing are some of the finest examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the Midwest. The Modernist movement was able to grow and develop in this region because Ann Arbor was, and still is, an open, diverse community that fosters an atmosphere ideal for creative expression and experimentation. The University of Michigan provided access to the advancements in engineering and building materials, as well as many of the forward-thinking architects, needed to create these new works. Today, these architectural gems survive in their near-original forms because of the careful preservation efforts of the dedicated property owners and the continued interest and enthusiasm of Mid-Century Modern design.
Modern design started in Ann Arbor in the 1930s, but blossomed in the decades after World War II. Wartime research had turned the U-M into one of the nation’s leading research institutions and an influx of students attending under the GI Bill swelled its enrollment. New residents settled here to serve as faculty and staff for the rapidly growing university and to work in research-related businesses. These doctors, engineers, physicists, chemists – many of them the best and brightest minds in their fields – were leading America’s charge into a modern age of new materials, high technology, and intense scientific research.
At the same time, the School of Art and Architecture was also changing as the principles of Modernism eclipsed the Beaux-Arts style, which had dominated American architecture since the 1880′s. The Modern movement started around the turn of the twentieth century as new building and material technologies began to affect how architects designed and organized their buildings. At U-M, the conflict between Beaux-Arts and Modernism lasted into the late 1930s. However, as early as the 1930s, faculty member and practicing architect George B. Brigham brought modern architectural principles to the school, and began to design Ann Arbor’s first truly modern homes. Out of his studio came Robert Metcalf, who was a prolific modern designer as well as serving as chair and then dean of the architecture school from 1968-1986.
The building environment in Ann Arbor was also in transition. The Great Depression and war years had put a fifteen-year damper on home building in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor Hills area, an attractive wooded tract that was close to the university campus had been platted in 1927, but had been left largely undeveloped. However after the war, with a booming economy and growing a demand for housing, the area was now ripe for residential development. The result was this remarkable collection of fine architect-designed homes in the style that has become to be known as Mid-Century Modern.